Recently I was invited by the Charleston Wine and Food festival to participate in their Lambs and Clams contest. There will be four monthly entries, each featuring a splendid ingredient, and the winner gets a trip for two to the festival, which looks like an awfully good time. You can see all the other contestants at the link, and fans of a certain charcuterie contest will recognize more than a few of them. It’s like we’re getting the band back together.
The lamb came from Border Springs Farm, which provides superb pastured meat to restaurants up and down the coast. When the leg arrived—plump and lovely, I might add—I was excited to open it up and get started. The problem was the head full of ideas that were driving me insane; I could not for the life of me decide between them. I paced, stared at the meat, paced some more, and couldn’t settle on anything. At one point, I just wanted to stuff it with rosemary and garlic, rub some spices on it, and throw it on the grill for a bit, since it’s hard to beat that treatment for a whole leg. But realistically, for a family of three that was going to yield a massive amount of meat that we’d spend a week getting slowly sick of. And I wanted to do this gorgeous meat justice, especially given that it had been shipped from afar.
Ultimately, the notion that there were just three of us ended up being the solution. I decided to take the leg apart and do a bunch of things to it, each resulting in a manageable quantity that we could eat as they were ready over the course of a few days of normal life. Because I am a crazy person, however, I kind of jammed it all into this weekend, so it became kind of an epic endeavor.
I’ve been into seam butchery lately. It’s fun and interesting to take things apart into their component muscles, and in the case of this leg I let the size and shape of those muscles govern the treatments they received, even though they all shared very similar flavor and texture profiles coming as they did from the same part of the same animal. When meat is broken down this way, each cut has a nice “finished” look to it. This helped me pretend they were all different parts, and I began referring to them as the “brisket,” the “loin,” and the “roast” so I knew what I was doing with each one.
The two piles on the left got ground up, as did the bottom left piece of the four on the right. I took this picture after I chose two small, lean pieces to cure in salt to make bresaola; the small one was insurance in case the big one didn’t have time to fully dry in the short time before this post was due. We are supposed to include recipes, and I will for some of the things, but this cure was just sea salt with black and pink pepper, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. The proportions don’t really matter, as long as it’s mostly salt, and a few strong flavors tend to be better than a lot of subtle ones when it comes to a cure. If you’re keen to try this, let the picture be your guide. This works with any whole muscle from a pig, cow, duck, or lamb, though the curing time will vary according to the size and density of the meat.
They sat in the fridge overnight, and then I rinsed them off and hung them up to dry. Here’s how the little one looked about four days later, sliced thin and served with kalamata olive-date tapenade:
This was a fetching first course. The herbs, from left to right, were a wrinkled cress sprout, basil flowers, and fennel. And behold, a recipe:
Equal weights of kalamata olives and medjool dates (try a cup of each) (I know cups measure volume, not weight)
Banyuls vinegar (substitute balsamic)
Pit the olives and dates and put them in a food processor. Begin blending, pouring in a bit of vinegar to help them spin and combine. Keep adding vinegar, scraping down the bowl a couple of times, until the tapenade is thick and creamy. Taste and add more of one or another ingredient to balance the sweet/salt/acid. Boom, you’re done. Put it in a small jar in the fridge and it will last quite a while. Serve a daub on slices of your home-cured lamb, or roast lamb leg, or chops, and be amazed and delighted.
Next up, the bone. I purposefully left some good meat on there, because I wanted it to make a good stock. Specifically, phở. The spices used in this wonderful Vietnamese soup are very similar to those used in Moroccan cooking, and lamb goes famously with those flavors. Normally it’s made with beef, but lamb phở is something I make often. Duck is great too.
1 gallon of water
1 meaty lamb leg bone (add some stew meat or trim if it’s pretty clean)
1 thumb of ginger
1 cinnamon stick about 4″ long
2 star anise pods
a fat pinch each of black peppercorns, and coriander
a small pinch of cardamom
Peel and halve the onion and ginger. Place them cut side down in a small skillet and char them thoroughly. Add everything to a stock pot, making sure the bone is covered, and bring to a simmer. Skim any foam, and leave at a bare simmer for two to three hours. Your house will smell incredible. Keep skimming for a nice clear result. Strain and use as a base for anything you use stock for: gravy, soups, stews, pot pie, etc. For extra credit, try using it in a Moroccan lamb tagine or a curry to double down on those flavors.
I love using phở to make borscht; those pie spices play very well with the earthy sweetness of beets. This version is dead simple.
For a quart of borscht, roast or boil six peeled and quartered golf ball-sized beets until tender. Add to the stock, pour in a half cup of cream, and purée until smooth. Work the soup through a strainer into another pot in batches with a spoon and season with salt to taste. It’s worth making this for the fuchsia color alone, but the flavor is pretty sublime.
The soup was an excellent bridge between the bresaola and the main course: merguez sliders. We loves us some lamb sliders around here, and when you can take a bit of time the day before to grind your meat with a rich combination of spices, the result is fabulously flavorful. I always make sure to add fat to my grind so that it ends up at least 20 percent of the final mixture. Burgers need fat to be tasty.
For the sake of simplicity, try using equal amounts of each spice (though you might want to dial back the cayenne, or substitute a milder dried pepper): pepper, cayenne, cumin, caraway, and coriander. Grind them all fine and use three tablespoons per pound of meat. Add two teaspoons of salt and a grated clove of garlic per pound and mix it all thoroughly together with your hands, cook a small bit in a pan to taste, make any adjustments, then put in a closed container in the fridge overnight to develop the flavors.
Extra spice mixture can be blended with olive oil to make a simple harissa, a popular condiment in North African cuisine. It will keep for a week or two in the fridge.
To make the sliders fully from-scratch, I used this recipe for potato rolls but added a handful of chopped rosemary, thyme, sage, and tarragon plus one grated clove of garlic. They were soft, fragrant, and highly addictive. The condiments were lacto-fermented carrot slices, homemade ketchup that I added a bunch of harissa to, arugula leaves, and a preserved lemon-roasted garlic aïoli. Which reminds me:
Preserved Lemon-Roasted Garlic Aïoli
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon mustard (powdered or prepared)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon water
rind from half a preserved lemon, diced
1 head of roasted garlic (wrapped in foil, 350˚ oven for an hour or so), squeezed out of its skin
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup olive oil
Put the egg yolk, mustard, vinegar, lemon, garlic, salt, and water in a food processor and begin blending. Combine the oils into one large measuring cup with a spout. Drizzle the oil into the opening, keeping it in a spaghetti-thin stream until you see an emulsion begin to form, at which point you can increase the flow a bit. When the oil is done, turn the machine off and spatula it all together, then remove it to a container and refrigerate.
I cut the tops off the heads so some steam can escape and concentrate the result. (Leave the foil loosely gathered at the top rather than tightly twisted). Do you see that? That right there is one of the most profound forms of culinary alchemy available to humankind and all you have to do is put garlic in the oven for an hour. Do you see those strands around the roasted head? Those are CARAMEL. GARLIC CARAMEL. I made my wife a huge container of roasted garlic purée once, about ten heads’ worth. She ate it all in one sitting, slathered on toast, and got a stomach ache. True story.
To make the sliders, form the meat mixture into small balls (again, about golf ball-sized) and then press them into thick patties. Cook them in a skillet or on a grill to the doneness of your choice, but if you’re grinding your own meat and you know where it comes from you’re missing out if you let it go at all past medium rare.
Seriously: these are good. I had more than one. That red dust is smoked paprika.
Thus concluded day one, the first half of the six-way lamb leg odyssey. I would have kept going, but the sliders were too good.
After a lovely hike, day two focused on more main coursey dishes and more formal presentation because I had a bit more time to stretch out and play with the plating. First up, pastrami made from the “brisket,” which was a flattish piece with a nice fat cap that seemed well suited to the task. I made a simple brine: four cups of water, three tablespoons of salt, a pinch of pink salt, a bay leaf, two sliced cloves of garlic, a few thyme sprigs, a branch worth of rosemary leaves, and a dozen twists of the pepper mill. It sat in the brine for 24 hours or so, but if you are using a big piece of meat scale up the brine amount and leave it in for three days or more.
Once it came out, I rinsed off the herbs and rubbed the whole thing in equal amounts of black pepper and coriander that I ground coarsely, then hot-smoked it on maple for an hour or so until it was 140˚ in the middle. A big piece will take longer, but don’t overcook it. When it was done, I sliced it and served it on the latest batch of kimchi for a nice ethnic mashup version of corned beef and cabbage. Three bites and it was gone; I didn’t want any of these courses to be heavy or overwhelming.
For those of you who might be new here, I make the plates too. I like to think of it as a benign form of OCD. A few chives on top really made the pink meat pop. Pastrami and kimchi: comfort food for the twenty-first century.
Next up, the “tenderloin.” I suspect this might be equivalent to the eye of the round in a cow, but I can’t be sure. In any case, it was a lovely cylindrical shape and had a nice vein of fat on one side that I kept. I rolled it in salt and thyme and then seared it on the fat side for a bit until it was nicely browned, then rolled it around a bit to color the whole outside. It was still fully raw, though beautifully fragrant, when I vacuum bagged it and dropped it in a 130˚ water bath for four hours. I wanted this cut to be meltingly tender like its namesake, so I figured a long gentle cooking would help achieve that texture.
While it cooked, I mashed some potatoes (yukon golds, freshly dug), defrosted a few ice cubes of beef demiglace, and made a quick gastrique with blackcurrant vinegar and maple syrup. For a condiment, I went with a combination of things that are at their peak right now in the garden: horseradish, black radishes, and nasturtium seeds. Three different sharpnesses, all grated fine, squeezed through cloth, and dressed with mustard oil, cider vinegar, and a bit of olive oil to hold it all together. The finished plate also included a nasturtium flower, my favorite of all the edible ones we grow; they’re lavish like orchids and spicy like wasabi.
The meat was very tender, and had become intensely perfumed by the thyme during its long snuggle in the bath. A sexy plate of food.
Last up was the “roast.” it had a concave side that I rubbed with a paste of garlic, salt, and fresh fennel seeds so that when I tied it up (using silicone rubber bands) the mixture ended up inside. On the outside, I rubbed a mixture of salt, coffee, and smoked paprika. This went in a 375˚ oven while I dealt with the rest, and I confess that I took my eye off the ball with this one and it ended up a bit overcooked. Not dry, but not as pink as I like it. In any case, the other elements were very good. Those were a cube of leftover polenta, cooked with whey (substitute it for water to get a marvelously subtle cheesy flavor) and diced carrots plus a roasted kabocha squash that I puréed and beat in after the corn was cooked. Leftover polenta is great for crisping up like this, and makes excellent croutons for soups, salads, and made-up lamb dishes. The green part was a luscious purée of red mustard greens (2 cups’ worth) that I cooked with half a diced onion and a pinch each of toasted mustard seeds, fenugreek, coriander, and cardamom in a little oil until the greens were soft. Then I added half a cup of yogurt and let it simmer for a few minutes, and then puréed it all with some fresh cilantro and basil (a handful each) until smooth. This was some highly persuasive saag, and really made me want to bust out some paneer to complete the dish.
The sauce was a combination of the juices from the “tenderloin” and the “roast” plus the leftover demiglace. I threw these tomatoes in the pan to warm them and coat them with the sauce right before plating, though they might have been better under the broiler to really get some color. In any case, they made a handsome garnish.
Thus ended a pretty lamb-filled Columbus Day weekend. Apart from the fun of playing around with this beautiful meat, I learned a few things about big pieces of meat and how they can be made to go a long way if they’re treated with some care and respect. The more I cook, the more I realize how much of the secret to good eating is doing most of the work ahead of time. Once a leg like this is taken apart, all the separate pieces could be frozen at various stages of their production and then deployed as needed on very short notice. There is a full week of different fancy dinners in one leg, and I will never look at one the way I used to, even if now and then I do opt to grill the whole thing or a party.
As for the contest, there is a panel of judges, but votes from the public also count towards the result, so if you could head over to their Facebook page to show your approval and/or sympathy for my insanity I would be most grateful. Next month they’re sending us oysters, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I will not be doing one dozen different things to them.